By Andrea Cweika
On April 29, normal life at St. Olaf College came to a screeching halt. News broke in the afternoon that a black student found a note on their car that read, “I am so glad that you are leaving soon. One less n**ger that this school has to deal with. You have spoken up too much. You will change nothing. Shut up or I will shut you up.”
From 5 p.m. that day for the next 72 hours, school was effectively cancelled as students, faculty and community members gathered to protest hate crimes and racism on their campus. And Emma Whitford was right there with them.
“I had a whirlwind 72 hours of reporting that really defined me as a journalist and a leader,” Whitford said. She is the executive editor of the Manitou Messenger, her St. Olaf’s student newspaper.
Whitford, a 20-year-old rising senior at the Minnesota college, has been at the Mess since she was a freshman. She started as a staff writer, then moved up to news editor and is now heading into her second year as executive editor. The unique protest situation on her campus gave Whitford and the paper a chance to cover national news as it was happening. The events on campus “took a week of 24/7 commitments to investigating, writing and editing,” said the paper’s faculty supervisor Bill Sonnega.
“Breaking news reporting, social media reporting, and live streaming was a completely new frontier for us because the Mess is a weekly paper, but I'm really, really proud of the reporting we did,” Whitford said. “It really just clicked for me how important student journalism was in that moment.”
The Mess, Whitford said, has been instrumental in her journalism career. As a political science major, she loves studying politics and media, but has not received formal journalism training in her classes – the paper taught her how to “develop pitches, conduct worthwhile interviews, A.P. style, how not to talk with campus administrators,” she said.
“I owe the Mess a lot,” Whitford added.
Whitford was born in South Bend, Indiana, and raised in Middleton, Wisconsin. The 3,000-person St. Olaf College was a unique choice for the political science major when she was surrounded by state colleges and Big Ten universities. Whitford said she first became interested in the school during a high school visit.
“I happened to visit on student government election day, and also during LGBTQ Pride Week, so the campus was very active,” the rising senior said. “I liked that the student body seemed so involved, and that’s still something I admire about the campus.”
St. Olaf students are very involved – beyond Whitford’s “whirlwind 72 hours,” students have also been in the news for protesting a pro-Israel professor and demanding change from the administration in support of marginalized groups on campus. Since her time at the Mess, Whitford has been able to cover or edit everything from student film festivals to politics on campus, and she doesn’t shy away from controversial topics.
“One of her greatest strengths is her willingness to report on difficult subjects, such as sexism and racism on campus,” Sonnega said.
This summer, she is moving up to a bigger beat – covering business at the Minneappolis/St. Paul Business Journal as an intern with the Dow Jones New Fund business reporting program.
Whitford has not had any journalism internships, she said, so her reporting and editing skills are mostly self-taught. Whitford said she had heard good things about the DJNF program and thought she would “take a shot at applying.”
“I’m really looking forward to my time at the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal because I’ll be able to lend my skills to a professional news organization and learn how to cover a beat that’s much larger than my campus,” she said.
While she will be busy this summer running around the Minnesota city, Whitford said that right now she’s enjoying the second season of “Master of None” and “way too many donuts.” According to her biography on the Mess website, she is fueled by green tea lattes and the “Spotlight” soundtrack.
Sonnega said Whitford’s tireless work has helped the Mess cover events like protests thoroughly and make the paper relevant to students. With countless matcha stops around Minneapolis, her work this summer at the business publication looks to be just as ambitious.